Middle Israel: Avigdor Liberman presents... Gett

As with any other celebrity-couple’s breakup, the Bibi-Yvette divorce begs analogies, none of which seems to work.

Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As with any other celebrity-couple’s breakup, the Bibi-Yvette divorce begs analogies, none of which seems to work.
The sudden, blunt, and irreversible breakup between the prime minister and the resigned foreign minister who since 1993 had been his aide, colleague, deputy, and heir-apparent, cannot be compared, for instance, to the failure of the Charles-Diana marriage.
Yes, one of the estranged Israeli spouses was for the other as overly intellectual as the prince was for the princess, but the other spouse, unlike Diana, was not particularly prettier than the spouse in whose ears he used to whisper nuclear secrets and parliamentary plots.
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That is also why the Israeli pair’s separation cannot be compared with last decade’s breakup between Linda and Hulk Hogan.
Neither of our protagonists can remind anyone of the TV blonde in that configuration, though her ex, a professional free-wrestler with a trademark horseshoe white mustache, does bring to mind our own free-wrestler, even though his facial trademark is a Bluto-the-sailor dark black beard.
Our duo’s split is also not the rift between Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, where one of the spouses, a Beatle-turned-millionaire, was perceived as the heartless villain, while the other, a model and amputee, was reflexively seen as the victim. In our case, the spouse on divorce’s receiving end enjoys no public sympathy despite his abandonment and humiliation, having left behind him along the decades his own trail of abandoned protégés, aides, advisers, confidants and allies, most of whom felt let down, misled, and also betrayed.
The search for an analogy becomes even more frustrating when we realize that our couple’s separation will not prove as amicable as the separation between Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt who – as both actors claim – still “regularly check with each other,” a habit Netanyahu and Liberman are both likely to avoid.
And ours is obviously not the separation between Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, the baseball legend who begged the fabled sex symbol to take him back after a turbulent, nine-month marriage. Chances are low that the Bibi-Yvette marriage, though so much longer, ever produced the kind of love letters that Joe wrote Marilyn, and chances are even lower that such a letter, had it existed, would sell for $78,000, as one of Joe’s did last year.
Indeed, there can be no analogy to the political estrangement this country has just witnessed, and that is for the exceptional reason that this divorce’s one spouse, while dumping the other, was in the middle of a breakup with thousands others, incidentally the very ones he hoped to impress.
As often happens with the media’s treatment of celebrity divorces, ours also invited several excited responses that had little to do with the event’s real causes and effects, which in our case exceed its protagonists’ lives, as they impact the soul of the Jewish state.
Blinded by a sense of glee in the face of a previously resurging Netanyahu’s sudden loss of altitude some rushed to salute his departed passenger as a gifted strategist whose cunningly timed jump from Netanyahu’s cockpit they called ingenious, principled, and selfless.
In fact, Liberman’s move is a celebration of hypocrisy, selfishness, and recklessness, all of which add up to the final proof that his unique model of politics constitutes a threat to the Jewish state’s democratic hygiene.
AVIGDOR LIBERMAN started off as a positive byproduct of a happy chapter in Israeli history.
Having arrived here from the former Soviet Union 12 years ahead of the great post-Soviet immigration, he represented that population’s political involvement, successful absorption, and quick production of leaders.
The man who arrived here at age 20 was director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office by age 38 and a cabinet member at 43, eventually serving six years as foreign minister, another seven in three other ministries, and five as deputy prime minister.
There aren’t many such stories of an immigrant’s success in this society, or indeed in any other.
Moreover, having grown up speaking Yiddish in Kishinev, the Moldavian town infamous for the pogrom in 1903 when 47 Jews were murdered, 500 were wounded, and 700 houses were destroyed – Liberman personified Zionism’s resurrection of European Jewry’s dry bones.
As a minister, Liberman proved to be a worldly man whose ability to dialogue with Central and Eastern European leaders was priceless. Back when he and Netanyahu harmonized, this country sported a prime minister who when in the White House spoke its tenant’s rich English, and whose foreign minister when in the Kremlin spoke its tenant’s terse Russian. There was no such cross-cultural combination in any other government, and its contribution to Jerusalem’s good rapport with the former East Bloc has been underappreciated.
Liberman also deserves credit for championing the Russian-speaking immigration’s causes.
True, in itself his combination of nationalism, capitalism, and crusading secularism was not novel, having been previously represented by Tommy Lapid, and before him by Rafael Eitan.
There was a real constituency behind his battles for civil marriages and easier conversion.
However, that same real constituency and its will, and what Liberman has made of them, are why the man who personified immigration’s success now embodies autocracy’s menace.
The autocratic islands that checker Israel’s democracy were not invented by Liberman.
As this column noted in the past, the phenomenon of parties that follow one supreme leader who handpicks lawmakers, appoints ministers, and directs policy without reporting to any formal party forum, let alone answering to it, or even just consulting it, was perfected by Shas, and then emulated by others, from Rafael Eitan to Yair Lapid.
That such politics is democracy’s contamination should go without saying. Not only does our crooked electoral system not allow us to elect our lawmakers directly, in the autocratic parties voters are served with lists of candidates that faced not even the flawed screening processes of party centers or primary elections.
The result of this is the arrival in the Knesset of anonymous passersby, like those who in 1994 split the right-wing Tsomet faction and joined a left-wing government their voters evidently opposed, while led by a man who was later jailed for dealing drugs.
Even so, in that case the autocratic-party leader’s own loyalty to the ideas in whose name he was elected was never in doubt.
Such was also the integrity of Israeli politics’ many other autocrats, from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to Yair Lapid.
Liberman now disrupted this tradition.
Climbing agilely from one-man-rule’s ground floor, where it tries to remain a business-minded authoritarianism, to its second floor, where it ceases to be about the autocrat’s ideas and becomes about his ego, Liberman now reached autocracy’s rooftop, where ego gives way to whim.
Not only did he never involve his voters in selecting the assorted lawmakers he inserted into the Knesset over the years, or when he decided to merge with the Likud, or when he decided to split it – Liberman now did the perfect opposite of his voters’ will.
It takes no pollster, shrink, or fortune teller to know what the 215,000 Israelis who voted for Liberman wanted him to do: they wanted him aboard Netanyahu’s van.
Instead, Liberman stormed off and threw a monkey wrench in Netanyahu’s wheels.
Liberman’s explanations, that the new government is going to be insufficiently “nationalist” and that it is going to spend excessively on ultra-Orthodox causes convinced no one. He sat with the ultra-Orthodox in Netanyahu’s second government under terms similar to those he now decries, and his worries for this right-wing government’s nationalism are as valid as worries for the pope’s faith in Jesus.
What drove Liberman was not conviction but frustration, the defeat he was handed in the electoral encounter that Israeli democracy still imposes on its autocrats, the encounter where Liberman lost twothirds of the following at which he peaked last decade.
That, not his parting with Netanyahu, was the real divorce at play here, a sweeping vote of no confidence that Liberman refused to accept, and to which he responded like an enraged husband who will not give his estranged wife her gett.
There were unconfirmed reports this week that the leader of North Korea had his defense minister publicly executed by a firing squad with anti-aircraft shells because he snoozed during a military maneuver in the presence of the dictator. Chances are low this really happened, even in that kingdom of fear, but it is a good reminder of where autocracy’s whim might lead.
Israel is of course nowhere near autocracy, and if anything it is closer to anarchy.
However, where Liberman has just arrived is where the journey to autocracy begins, and where his eventful political career has now come of age. It is also where it should end.